Acts of quarantine

Here is an extra spoiler-filled Byatt/Ferrante-off that nobody asked for.

It is unsatisfying to me that the (largely excellent) My Brilliant Friend adaptation gives Antonio short shrift, to the detriment of the characterisation of Lenù. On screen, Antonio is played for cringes. Lenù becomes a passive recipient of the semi-wanted attentions of an over-eager bumbler, who makes shallow jabs at the grooming of his rival, the cool intellectual, Nino. But in the novel, Lenù is actively, if ineptly, manipulative. When Antonio appears after school it is at her request, in order to rub Nino’s face in it. Moreover, it is she who asks that they attend Lila’s wedding as a pair, and because Antonio reasonably takes this as a willingness to socially cement their relationship, he goes into debt to get a new suit—an expense which the show presents as a spontaneous vanity. These changes rob the relationship, and consequently Lenù, of considerable complexity.

Critically, the television series also downplays their mutual physical chemistry. This seems a small matter in the first book alone, but their connection presents a significant comment on sexuality in the wider arc of the four novels. Aside from the creepy elder Sarratore (who is an awful bag of shit), to the best of my recollection only Antonio is strongly presented as offering a woman sexual satisfaction. (For the most part, the books’ descriptions of sex echo Lila’s: “Fucking is overrated.”) In this respect, Antonio is specifically contrasted favourably against Lenù’s other, highly intellectual, middle/upper-class partners, even as union with him represents the danger of being trapped in her origins. Only with Antonio, a man of the neighbourhood—and only after social climbing renders Lenù utterly outside the power of the neighbourhood—do we see in any detail an honest and non-threatening consummation of mutual desire. As is often the case, the neighbourhood is both a source of vitality, as well as inhospitable to it.

I find it fascinating to juxtapose this against (what else) the early loves of Frederica Potter, and her philosophy of “lamination”. Frederica’s compulsive drive to keep everything separate—love, sex, affection, thinking, reading, home—her need to hold all experiences at an analytical distance—is her safeguard against being swallowed whole by local domesticity. For both Ferrante’s and Byatt’s young women, there is a kind of satisficing going on, with their hunger for things that come into conflict—for status, for independence, for knowledge, including sexual knowledge. A major part of how they handle this problem is to quarantine sexual exploration from emotional vulnerability, in defiance of societal (and perhaps also readerly) expectations.

In Frederica’s case, this centres, perhaps counterintuitively, in the character of Alexander. Alexander begins in many respects as a Nino-esque figure, embodying a quiet cultural and intellectual glamour, and inspiring painful desire of an impossibly compound nature: Alexander is sex, he is writing and reading, he is romance, he is social advancement, he is intellectual worth, he is clever company, he is metropolitan escape from Blesford and kitchens and curates. Yet when he is finally within reach, the very completeness of Frederica’s devotion to him repels her. Any possibility of total intimacy is a trap, here signalled by the appearance of the trimmings of domesticity, the chops she can’t cook. She runs away in favour of a lower-stakes, almost clinical—laminated—tryst with the reassuringly unexciting Wilkie.

There are curious parallels between the consensual sexual encounters that both Lenù and Frederica hold at the greatest distance. Both take place outdoors, with older men of extremely peripheral relevance to their lives. Both men seem at first to be safely left behind as private biographical footnotes, until the moment of the women’s first public artistic triumphs, when they reappear in a strange mixture of comedy and threat. Ed, the “traveller in dolls” whom Frederica meets on a bus, comes pushing through the crowd after she performs in Alexander’s play, and has to be hastily evaded. Lenù, cannier and in more control in many ways, successfully transforms her own incident into literary material, and finds her work at the receiving end of a bitter review from the man in question.

Quarantine is a strategy for a rigged world. Marriage, the ultimate running-together of things, simply doesn’t work for the women of these books. Not for Stephanie Potter or Lila Cerullo, with their romantic visions of package deals of love, sex and meaning. Not for Frederica, gambling somewhat incoherently on maintaining emotional and social independence with a sufficiently alien man. Not for Lenù, compromising on social ascension with an inconsiderate sexual damp squib. I’m glad she gets to enjoy Antonio after making it out the other side, and I hope the television series stays true to that, at least, when the time comes around.

You were all right

Despite some earlier ambivalence toward Elena Ferrante, I finally took the billion and a half recommendations to read the Neapolitan novels, and have just stumbled, reeling, off the exhilarating ride that is MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. I will need to get onto the other three books pronto, and I’m sure I will have many more thoughts when I’m done. But I wanted to pause for a remark occasioned by the comparison by John Freeman included among the praise quotes in my copy: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.” In fact the parallel that struck me more forcefully, if one really must insist on grounding everything in analogies to works by Anglo authors (note: one need not), is “Imagine if A.S. Byatt weren’t so snobby.” I couldn’t help recalling, as I ate this book up, that other gorgeous, labyrinthine quartet on gender, literature, domesticity, sexuality, tradition and violence–the Frederica Potter books.

Both first volumes begin in the 1950s (with the first appearance of television in the neighbourhood an event of some interest); both trace in sumptuous detail and with great psychological penetration the divergent lives of young people in a close-knit neighbourhood; both centre on young women’s intellectual ambitions and the threats that thwart them; both are rigorously critical but humanistic at heart; and both climax in weddings with varying elements of farce, and, in Ferrante’s case, horror. From what I’ve read so far, Ferrante is a more consistent and disciplined writer–sticking to comparisons between the first volumes for now (avoiding the painful subject of A WHISTLING WOMAN), though I love Byatt in an almost foundational way, I have to admit that the Marcus Potter subplot in THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN is not always entirely readable. Ferrante is also, and powerfully, much more attuned to matters of class. While Byatt sometimes gestures in this direction, it’s not really a matter of interest in the Potter books for her as much as it is in THE CHILDREN’S BOOK.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this comparison for me. The Frederica Potter books are, not to put too fine a point on it, like some kind of personal religion. It was on closing the pages of STILL LIFE that I knew I would write A CERTAIN EXPOSURE. I am enormously excited about what the rest of this series is going to do to my head.

The return of something or another

Been awhile, eh? My word world has been quiet. Against all better judgment (and every single source you could consult), I have been watching the film adaptation of Possession, which is terrible in every way imaginable and then a few more. As it seizes every opportunity to alienate the Byatt reader and must surely be incomprehensibly dull to everyone else, I can’t quite grok who the target audience is meant to be. Perhaps the same baffling market segment who enjoy Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet I find myself still watching. (Yes, I’m the sort of person who keeps pressing a bruise.)

More edifyingly, I am reading Piketty. The first 150 pages or so are, strictly speaking, purely accounting; but who knew accounting could ring with such clarity and insight? How do we manage to gabble and bicker so much about resources without simply taking stock of where they are and who they belong to? I feel a little like someone is showing me that I have lived on our earth without ever having a simple description of the shape and size of its continents and oceans. It makes me feel a little stupid. In the best way.

New year, new reading

This past week I have had the very great pleasure of reading Jhumpa Lahiri for the first time, via Unaccustomed Earth. The collection’s titular entry is basically perfect: I haven’t been so transported by a short story in a long time, possibly not since Greg Egan’s ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful’ blew my fifteen-year-old mind, or since A.S. Byatt scared the bejesus out of me for a week five or six years ago (‘The Thing in the Forest’). But the rest of the volume is also consistently superb. Lahiri knits bare, weightless sequences of detail together with compassion and grace. My only niggle is that every story centres on families which are affluent and hypereducated (I’m not sure, in fact, that there is a single one which doesn’t have a PhD involved). This feels a bit oddly unbalanced, but it seems uncharitable to hold that against the book when there is drama and craft aplenty to be found in its tales regardless.

My year began between bits of Claire Tham. I liked how The Inlet started, but it petered out toward the middle and end. I agree with much of what Kirat Kaur and Pooja Makhijani have said about its lopsided focus; and in addition, I struggled with the fact that the dominant mode of so many of Tham’s characters is ennui. After a bit, all that boredom gets, well, boring. The same issue bedevilled Fascist Rock and made me give up on Saving the Rainforest after the first story. I like Tham best when her people care about something: there’s the compellingly drawn conflict between The Inlet‘s Willy Gan and his nephew, for instance; Winston’s ambition; Ling’s gift of a parrot to an old man. But these moments didn’t come often enough.

On a smaller note: I suspend a lot of judgment about how to deal with different registers and Englishes in fiction set in Singapore. In my view, there’s no easy or obvious approach for writers to take, and I dislike the idea of policing text for the so-called ‘authenticity’ of Singapore English. (Maud knows I speak weirdly and I exist.) But one scene with Cheung Fai rather jars, because he uses the word ‘ersatz’ in conversation, which in itself is fine, except he’s allegedly allergic to all things atas, and the exchange in question goes out of its way to imply that he’s oblivious to the (un)likelihood of his colleague understanding it. So the whole thing just seemed a bit confused. This is just a nit, though.

Bookshelves real and virtual

So I’ve gone and got myself a Goodreads author profile – from which you are quite possibly reading this entry, as I’ve synced the blog to it as well. I’m not sure I can keep up with consistently updating all these online profiles and ratings and reviews and so forth – the internet was eating enough of my life without yet another platform to manage – but I figured I may as well connect it to the little notes I’m scribbling here on reading and writing.

Lately: the pleasant discovery that Borders at Westgate stocks every single Byatt book, even her two non-fiction volumes, so I’ve finally read The Game. It’s hard for me to think about the novel purely on its own terms, instead of getting all caught up in the linkages to her later works: both the most obvious ones in terms of the Corbett/Potter sisters and the Moffit/Wedderburn characters, and also in the theme of authorial vampirism, later the centre of The Children’s Book. But I thought it was really neatly constructed, and the nastier characters in particular very enjoyably drawn, even though Moffitt was a damp squib and baffling descriptions of Ivan’s expressions as “Chinese” were jarring.

I’ve just spent a bunch of birthday vouchers I’d been given, too – on Mohsin Hamid, Ruth Ozeki and a book on the 50th anniversary of Operation Coldstore – so perhaps more here later. Plus, of course, details of A Certain Exposure‘s Singapore launch. All two of you: watch this space!